Chilling Effects

NYC Politicos Rally Against Brooklyn College BDS Panel

Amy Schiller reports from a press conference at Brooklyn College lodging complaints about a panel on boycotting the Jewish State.

Michael Nagle

On a blustery January day, several New York City officials, including former Comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, appeared at Brooklyn College to denounce a panel sponsored by the Political Science department. So offensive to these speakers was the panel’s subject—advocating for boycotting, sanctioning and divestment from Israel – that one, Assemblyman Alan Maisel, said the stakes matched the 20th century’s greatest tragedy: “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here.”

The crowd of about forty press, students, and activists included Assemblymen Steve Cymbrowitz and Michael Simanowitz, Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs and Helene Weinstein and Assembly District Leader Ari Kagan, and was convened by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who repeatedly denounced college president Karen Gould—saying “show some leadership!”—and the chair of the department, Paisley Currah, whom he called “a coward.” In addition to the public officials, the speakers included Brooklyn College sophomore Joey Savan, and Executive Director of Americans for a Safe Israel Helen Freedman, who wore a hand-colored sign saying “Shame on Brooklyn College’s Support for Jew Hatred.”

Scheduled for Feburary 7th, the panel on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will feature Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler—referred to by Assemblyman Hikind as “Barghouti and…the lady…” perhaps one of rare times when Judith Butler has been so vaguely identified by someone other than a restaurant maître de. Though BDS is officially a nonviolent movement, Hikind went on to say, “They think Hamas and Hezbollah are nice organizations, and they probably feel the same way about Al Qaeda!” He repeatedly invoked the specter of a “chilling effect” that the panel would have on students, who “need to be concerned about various professors in the classroom.”

The campaign against the panel has gone far beyond the university bureaucracy, with coverage from the New York Times and a letter requesting that the department withdraw its support signed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (the frontrunner candidate for the 2013 mayoral race), Comptroller John Liu, and Representatives Jerrold Nadler, Nydia Velazquez, Hakeem Jeffries, and Yvette Clarke. Alan Dershowitz brought wide-scale attention to the issue through his editorials in the Daily News and Huffington Post. Dershowitz also emailed the heads of all the departments at Brooklyn College, his alma mater, demanding that they refuse to cosponsor the panel: “It is Professor Currah and his department that are denying the students of Brooklyn College the ability to hear the free expression of contrary ideas on equal basis and with equal endorsement by the department of political science.”

According to Jeremy Thompson, a spokesperson for the college, the department’s co-sponsorship does not indicate an endorsement of the views being expressed. Daniel Margolis, a recent graduate of Brooklyn College, wrote an email in support of the department’s co-sponsorship, saying: “By bravely co-sponsoring a controversial forum – which means neither approval nor disapproval but openness to different ideas – you are offering a service to the Brooklyn College community…I believe… that reasonable debate without censorship will bring people to better understandings of each other and the issues at hand.”

A professor, who declined to speak on the record for fear of harassment, noted, “The department has sponsored hundreds of events, including Alan Dershowitz’s 2008 Konefsky Lecture where he defended torture, where there has been no one presenting ‘the other side.’"

In an interview, the anti-BDS student activist Joey Savan said, “The political science department is known to be anti-Semitic,” but declined to name specific instances or professors, saying it was based on “experiences in the classroom.”

Yet when Savan claimed to speak for the pro-Israel students, one student rebutted, “He doesn’t speak for me!” Dennis Futoryan, an upper sophomore studying political science, said, “I consider myself pro-Israel, and to me standing up for Israel means supporting any kind of civic debate about the issues. It’s not like anyone is banned from attending the event and speaking their views.”

When asked whether the presence of an anti-BDS advocate on the panel would change the opposition’s views (given that Dershowitz has offered his services), the Assemblyman responded that he was against the political science department’s sponsorship, not that he was against the event being held by a student group. Yet that distinction undermines his claim that taxpayer dollars, which subsidize all CUNY facilities and student activities, should not go towards what he called “racist speech.”

Hikind called for the department vote on sponsoring the panel to be public: "Is someone hiding behind someone’s skirt? Release the vote to the public! Those who want to sponsor the event, put your names down!” He noted just prior to the press conference that the college president Gould has cancelled her upcoming trip to Albany to request increased funds for the university. Hikind added that he was disappointed that she would not be able to advocate for additional funding: “You don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that I said I would make her life a little miserable?”

Looks like the chilling effect goes both ways.